Mental Models - Action Bias 💥
I suffered from the downside of action bias for a long time! Becoming aware of it was quite the revelation - I hope it is for you too.
What is action bias?
Individuals have a penchant for action, often for good reasons. But action bias arises if that penchant is carried over to areas where those reasons do not apply, hence is nonrational.
- A. Patt & R. Zeckhauser, Action Bias and Environmental Decisions
In simpler words, at times we have a desire to do something, when it might be better to do nothing. As Warren Buffet puts it:
There’s no use running if you’re on the wrong road.
Why is this interesting?
Some might say a positive side of action bias is forward momentum and an increased potential for discovery. In the startup world you'll always be hearing things like "move fast and break things" and "fail fast", which may be about discovery.
For more on that, revisit Issue #6 - The Four Types of Luck.
In my experience action bias has had more of a negative effect.
I found this example below from a study of soccer to be rather shocking!
In soccer penalty kicks, goalkeepers choose their action before they can clearly observe the kick direction. An analysis of 286 penalty kicks in top leagues and championships worldwide shows that given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center. Goalkeepers, however, almost always jump right or left.
Why won't the goalkeeper stay still?
Norm theory...implies that a goal scored yields worse feelings for the goalkeeper following inaction (staying in the center) than following action (jumping), leading to a bias for action.
In other words it's "normal" to jump to one side, and just feels better to have done something!
In many businesses action bias is rife, maybe because moments of thoughtfulness and inaction are often frowned upon and seen as a lack of productivity. But particularly with knowledge work, doing something rather than nothing can just be an illusion of progress. It's also hard to see the positive consequences of the things people don't do.
If you've ever been part of an organization that was restructuring regularly, this might ring true:
Continuous reorganization may be dangerous. The Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter said in the 1st Century: "We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."
I'll leave you with this one from Henry David Thoreau:
It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" Don't confuse activity with results. There is no reason to do a good job with something you shouldn't do in the first place.
Want to go deeper?
📖 I love Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It covers adrenaline addiction - an idea that goes hand in hand with action bias:
Adrenaline addiction is the unwillingness and/or inability of busy people to slow down and review, reflect, assess, and discuss their business and their team. An adrenaline addiction is marked by anxiety among people who always have a need to keep moving, keep spinning, even in the midst of obvious confusion and declining productivity.
🙊 Sometimes action bias is sometimes referred to as do-something syndrome. It's sister is probably say-something syndrome, which you can sum up with this quote:
Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.
🧠 Related mental models from the archive
What do you think about action bias? I love hearing your reactions!
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